NNS Spotlight: Riverworks clinic teaches clients financial literacy
August 24, 2021 by Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Chris Free (left) and Yolanda Coleman offer financial assistance through the Riverworks Financial Clinic. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)
For nearly 20 years, Maggie Barnes, 59, lived in the Majestic Lofts, an apartment complex in the former Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee.
The location suited Barnes’ needs: It was safe, it was accessible to transit lines, and it was conveniently located near a Walgreens.
Even more appealing was the fact that because the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, or WHEDA, controlled the rent, Barnes, who is unable to work due to a disability, was able to afford to live downtown.
But in 2020, Hempel Properties, a commercial real estate firm based in Minneapolis, bought the property. Barnes was told on March 1 that she had 28 days to leave her home.
After receiving her notice, Barnes turned to Community Advocates and the Urban Economic Development Association, which, in turn, connected her to Riverworks Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization on the North Side that provides economic and community development programs.
With the help of Riverworks’ staff, “I was able to apply for an apartment and acquire one,” Barnes said. “Credit plays a role in just about everything and here [at her current apartment], they wanted to make sure I established good credit for myself.”
It was nice to get help from someone who knew what questions to ask, Barnes said.
And that “someone” was Coretta Herring, the financial clinic director, who has been with Riverworks on and off for about 10 years. Recently, Riverworks, located at 526 E. Concordia Ave., announced it was expanding its financial clinic to better support the needs of the community.
Herring began as the director of the organization’s financial opportunity center, which offered financial coaching, workforce development and income support.
“Over the years, we realized we were missing a bunch of families,” Herring said. “We wanted to put an emphasis on the financial piece because that’s where a lot of folks were hurting. The financial clinic is like a medical clinic. You go to the financial clinic because you’re hurting.”
“It’s a one-stop shop to help families become financially stable,” says Yolanda Coleman, the program’s financial navigator. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)
‘A financial plan’
When clients come to the financial clinic, they talk about everything from their budget to their credit report, Herring said. The clinic’s focus is financial education.
“Everybody walks out with a financial plan, which we call a ‘prescription,’ ” Herring said, adding that the clinic does monthly check-ins to support residents.
With Herring’s help, Barnes learned how to contact credit agencies to pay off her debts and how to set up payment plans.
“If I didn’t have Coretta, I wouldn’t be here,” Barnes said. “She’s still helping me and it’s free.”
Barnes now lives in the North Shore area.
The clinic offers several programs, including a year-round VITA tax program, credit assistance and the financial navigator program.
“It’s a one-stop shop to help families become financially stable,” said Yolanda Coleman, the program’s financial navigator.
Coleman and her co-workers help individuals and families with rent payment assistance applications, utilities, FoodShare, unemployment, homeownership counseling, credit repair and more.
The Riverworks Financial Clinic has 25 staff members and helps about 1,500 families a year, she said.
It starts with a phone call and goes from there, she said.
After 17 years, Maggie Barnes had to leave her home, but she found a new place to live with help from Riverworks Financial Clinic. (Photo by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)
‘If you know better, you’ll do better’
Chris Free, a financial coach, specializes in tax assistance and educates clients on employment taxes, property taxes and other things.
“Programs like ours are really needed in the community, especially when it comes to finances,” Free said, adding that some clients feel “that money is evil, money is taboo.
“But money is just a tool that we all should learn.”
If someone isn’t properly trained in how to use a tool, they’ll misuse it, Free said, which is why Riverworks Financial Clinic is so essential.
“If you know better, you’ll do better,” Coleman said.
People are told to save or have an emergency fund or open a bank account, but they are not taught how nor are they taught why that’s important, Free said.
“Everyone has their issues and their things when they come through our door,” Free said. “The lack of financial literacy does not discriminate.”